The Well of Loneliness

‘What’s it like? The new place?’

I struggled to find the words. Cold. Bleak. Liminal. I wanted to show her the slim rivers drying on my cheeks, leaving a trail of ashes and salt. I wanted to play a film of the last six weeks and have a lightning flash of understanding tear through muscle and electrify bone. I wanted to say the unfamiliarity is killing me.

I was sitting in my room – my strange, alien room – after I was released from the clinic – (none of these memories will be in order, by the way, Mind: Out of Order) – knocking back black instant coffee, sharp and sour and necessary as breathing, curled up in the hollow of God’s palm like a spider caught in a match flame; a jumble of delicate, breakable limbs. I wanted to say: You know I had a fiancé, right? A warm home in a beautiful part of the country? A glamourous if stressful job? Now I’m single and jobless in halfway housing, what do you think it’s like?

‘Yeah…It’s okay actually.’

I was a coward. I sipped my thin, watery caffeine and remembered standing on the warm concrete of the clinic yard watching the stars come out, like spots of bright rain on the other side of the glass. Life suspended in the atmosphere, life as a spinning plate, life as a shard of stardust wandering bright and aimless under Heaven, step by faltering step.

STEP ONE – list five things drinking/drug taking gave you in the beginning…

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…and I wrote power…escape…belonging… among others. Thinking about it, right from the first time the glass lip of a bottle clinked against my teeth, I was swallowing escape. A magical elixir that could make me like other people, that could tailor the awkward suit of my own skin more neatly around my transgressive, psychedelic watercolour soul, that opened a door to anywhere but here. I used to think the miracle ‘Drink Me’ was about lifting myself out of the well of loneliness; but I realised during Step One that it was always, always about crawling right inside the broken ribcage of my loneliness, shuffling on bleeding knees like a sinner to the foot of a rotting cross, and dying there.

I cried when I put down the phone. I knew I’d get on the floor and talk to God in a minute, another minute, a breath, another breath; dragged in and out of my lungs like an oxygen clock, but the dial tone pushed my head under the water and put me deep in the well, listening to the sound of my own breathing echoing off the stones

Milagro

Once when I was alone in Italian fields I saw a spirit on a Palamino horse. A female spirit in smooth white linen and in my vision I knew she was called Milagro. I waited as she rode straight towards me, whole body trembling like an arrow about to fly out from between someone’s fingers but when she was foot or so away she vanished, leaving a cool halo of misty air around my face like a cloud of flour settling on the swaying yellow grasses.

My windows are open to the night and to the smell of all the flowers that have gone to bed or are still up, sipping honey rain water from the ground like coffee. I don’t really sleep despite the chemicals I wash down every night with filtered water. Sometimes I drift into a half-awakening and go and visit that beautiful and terrible city in my liminal dreams that I call Somnopolis – go visit its surreal cathedral and walk long, polished aisles inhaling candle smoke and furniture polish. Watch the junkies on the kerb shoot up lucidity.

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Writing is an occupation full of jangling hours, like the minutes are silent windchimes telling you another silent storm in your head is coming. The sky at dawn here is a mass of shifting violet with silent Roe deer grazing in the green fields and I always felt at my most alive in the dawn, connected to the world wide wisdom while the energy is fresh and undiluted by car horns and plastic and advertising. I rise with the mist from the waking grass, I am the steam pouring from the backs of the brown herd.

When I was a kid I’d walk down to the farm and talk to the horses the sky was that star-freckled watercolour. Take an apple for the sleepy amber mare in the long field, she was a true gentlewoman in ginger and ash blonde with velvet nostrils the colour of cinnamon, wholesome animal breath curling away into the minerals given up by the soft soil.

Stroke her coarse, bone-pale mane. remember the bleached robe of the miraculous spirit. Give the fruit to those blunt teeth in grateful communion, because the wine in the heart of the apple is sweet.

No space for wild girls

I never stop being amazed.

When I was young, and wanted to run and run until I finally found a place in the world I felt alive, dip my hair in feral mermaid greens, creep into empty practice rooms and talk to the piano all day long, or just wake in time to watch the dawn shift into that singular, magical violet, the world made sure I was buried alive; pushed down to explore fierce underworlds illuminated only by rock quartz and fireflies. Spittle on the bus and fractured fingers, and later, blister packs full of soothing syllables to keep the lid on a boiling girl. These were the days of dial-up AOL taking wobbling steps toward the future; of plastic barbed wire bracelets and grimacing around smeared cherry lip gloss and wondering how to be like them. Girls. Girls My Age. The ones who could talk together without creating awkward silences around them; they went to town in groups and got good science grades despite laughing through class and the boys liked them. They didn’t embarrass their families by getting caught naked in the open-air community swimming pool after breaking in to feel the marbling waters against their limbs in ripples of living silk. They didn’t sleep in their clothes. Or see ghosts.

I know, things were different for me even beyond the realms of alternative then. Lying on scratchy hospital linen, I wondered how I’d got there. I knew girls in baggy grunge shirts and thick kohl eyeliner, who streaked their hair pillarbox red and wore their outcast status like medals. They were spat on too, sometimes, but they were never in the bed next to mine. Perhaps they hid their Otherness better, or kept their scars from stumbling through womanhood’s bramble patch a secret underneath their long sleeves. I never hurt myself like that, by descending ladders of shiny white tissue; but I saw the world in wild paint and heard music in empty rooms, and spent too many hours in an obscure and mystical world of my own. I tasted the fresh trails of other lives and infinite possibility on the air the same way you know the season is changing; when the sweet breath of spring exhales itself into the world, or a frost yet to fall on orange leaves flicks out an icy tail in premonition. I worshiped the world too strongly, saw it without veils.

Back then, you didn’t talk about it. You took your pills and were mute as a novice under new, silent vows. It would upset your family, damage your chances, if anyone knew you weren’t a real girl. You took step after blind step through the thicket, heart and eyes held out in your hands for wicked queens to eat. There was no space for wild girls. When your ears pricked up, you flattened them down before anyone could see and shout wolf. When a rogue feather sprung out through a papercut, you apologised, smoothed it back down with handfuls of spilled oil, and brushed the fledgling stars firmly out of your hair.

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Now I see them in colourful crowds or unapologetically alone. On the bus, online; packs of wild girls, with watercolour hair and winged dreams. The world blinked while I was away, busy being an aura floating in drugged isolation; it had code pumped straight into its veins that changed its digital DNA forever. In just five, seven, ten years; the lungs of the globe expanded and suddenly all those girls like me could breathe easier too. I see them striding purposefully through the tube station, across the road, with sleek fur and smiling lips, hips that demand sacred space to swivel, teeth out and dipped in ink, and know they are bolder than I could ever be. Whether they live with or without a diagnosis, minds clear or clouded, they live.

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It feels too late for me.

I know – it sounds so defeated, so self-pitying – but I have years of this enforced solitude and doctor’s orders like bleached cotton bandages wrapped around my head, and don’t know if my skin could take this new sun after all. I feel too old to join the pack. I’m just a handful of years ahead of this tidal wave of new women tumbling sand and sea glass into something more refined, but what a difference those years have made. Or perhaps it’s the toffee time effect of all those waiting rooms blurring into one another; perhaps I’ve sat behind so much shatter-proof glass it’s simply grown around me.

Now there is space for wild girls. They tap destinations into online journey planners with foxes’ claws. When they get papercuts and a hawk’s feather springs out, they laugh, and test its strength against the wind. I hope you soar as high and far as you wish, now that the sky is open.

Momentum

Opposite my window lurks the gaunt, grey shadow of the old people’s home. I look straight into their dining room, lit almost every hour with dim, soothing lights. The glint of ready cutlery. There is one woman in particular who sits out in the garden when she can, and always on the second-floor balcony at three. She wears a white dress and has beautifully styled hair the same bleached linen colour. The White Woman. Last time she was sitting out there she had a birthday balloon tied to her chair. My neighbour and I were going to take some roses around, but we got drunk in the afternoon and forgot.

I feel like pounding my fist against the door with a question – what the hell happened to me over the last few years? Too much solitude, the keyhole whispers. That long, dark brain of yours ate the silence and then it ate you. I ended up hating this pretty town; endless rainy pavements mocking every step, the ocean’s whisper sultry and lethal: ‘Come away, come away with me.’ I was most happy (back to the question of happiness) on a little boat, surging out to a jagged full stop of an Irish island, salt-fresh, lung-expanding bliss. The sensation of movement (this is also why I adore trains). I clung on to some railings with the flute strapped to my back in case we sank and smoked cigarettes with a cable-knit guy, so massive his shoulders took out the last view of the vanishing mountains. That was happiness, simply moving forward in no-place, no-time. A speck of flesh with momentum. The sea is a hungry time warp; brilliant and deathly and uncaring. I didn’t rate my chances if we flunked it, smooth as it was that day; the sun beating it into diamonds in a second when earth takes a million years to be so intensified.

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Glass Boat, 2009

And then I was back, heavy again. Back into the world of execs quibbling over cab fare, back into the world of birds that sing only when the traffic dims down its white-noise mechanical hum, at the close of day, or the opening of it. Back to the world of the communal (yet also of the solitary and desolate, as without action the relationship between you and the other lives stacked up above and around and below would remain passive and insensate). It’s too peculiar. I can feel the splinters of other lives in the walls working into the skin of my own, getting under the cells; like a piano being played atonal in the next room.

I said once to him that other people’s lives picked me out like torchlight; a beam slung under a canal at midnight, and all you can see are skeletal shopping trolleys and the dark, rainbow obsidian gleam of dirty water. Toads, reeds like long, green razors. Broken radios that have stopped talking about stranglings in basement flats and other unfortunate things that end, always, always, in boxes being lowered into the exhausted ground. One of the windows opposite has been dark for a while, a tiny postage stamp of black. There is no wheelchair patiently parked on the balcony at three. I don’t think the White Woman is coming back.

What Now?

2007. When I painted this I damn near thought I was at the end of my strength.

People fear death even more than pain. It’s strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah, I guess it is a friend.

Jim Morrison

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Vampire Hunting in Paris

There are places in this world which split you open, in awe, joy or sorrow; gardens, ruins, stone circles. There are cities that cleave you like a ripe fig; alive and all millipede feet and heavy breathing. They are aware.

Paris is such a city for me. A great leopard with filthy paws. Paris unpacks my loneliness with my shirts and shakes it out.

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I couldn’t tell you why. It might be the long streets tapping with the ghosts of a million famous footsteps, making me long for the past, a trick of nostalgic light. It might be the solitude, having no one to share the breath of this city. It might be the swarming crowds; each citizen an arrowhead, focused, determined. I merely wander cluelessly from my moorings.

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The romantic in me can’t have it both ways; I love the solitude, the melancholy. Watching the moon rise over the Seine, I know the glimmering perfection of the moment would be lessened for me if someone were to run up, laughing, and clasp my hand (Really? Are you lying?). My most profound and bittersweet moments are only experienced alone. The city winks back at me from silver-plated water. She understands. She embraces suffering like a martyr, a mistress of mansions and garrets.

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I am fortunate enough to catch Vespers in Notre Dame, the call and answer of prayerful melody; a vast aviary of devoted birds. There is one woman close to the altar, decked in blue and white like the Virgin. She raises her hands in ecstasy when she sings, she is transported beyond her body, her hands full of stained glass light.

I wonder at her life when the music stops. I wonder if carrying such a faith, she is ever lonely, too.

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I walk slowly through the streets back to the hotel. My train leaves for the South in the morning, there’s no point ghost-hunting my heart in this place with one turn of the clock left. I need more time! Paris lets me know she will be here when I need her, she sends a gentle rain to freckle the long avenues. The smell of the wet pavement rises, mingles with frankincense still tangled in my hair; they say when a holy scent follows a prayer, then that prayer is heard.